UK truck shortage persists despite demand from overseas drivers

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In the weeks following the UK government’s announcement that it would offer 5,000 temporary visas to mainland European truck drivers, as part of a campaign to reduce pressure on the supply chain at the As Christmas approached, Lukasz Skopinski, a Polish truck driver now working in the United Kingdom, offered this advice to friends back home:

Do not bother.

“I talk to them on WhatsApp while I’m driving, and when this topic comes up I tell them moving here isn’t worth it,” he said in a recent interview. “They are better off with a contract in Germany. The money is about the same and they will be much closer to home. “

So, rather than a source of instant relief, the visa offer became an informal measure of the appeal of post-Brexit Britain and the late pandemic to a group that once viewed this island as one the most attractive and lucrative places to settle and work.

Interviews with Polish drivers on both sides of the Channel suggest Britain has lost its luster. At the same time, the improvement in the Polish economy has made relocation much less attractive.

At a truck stop about an hour east of Warsaw, in a town called Maliszew, it was easy to find drivers who had heard of British visas. The challenge was to find someone willing to get one.

“Financially, everything is fine here,” said Kazimierz Makowski, who was transporting wheat from Poland to Latvia. “I would earn 1,000 more pounds a month there” – about $ 1,300 – “but I would have to pay for an apartment. So it’s not really profitable for me to move.

“Honestly, I prefer living in France,” said Miroslaw Kotynia, riding his 12 wheeler after a quick lunch.

Hoping to alleviate long lines at gas stations, empty shelves at grocery stores and a Christmas without tarts, the Transportation Department began recruiting overseas drivers in October. Official figures have not been released, but in mid-October, Oliver Dowden, Conservative Party co-chair, told a radio broadcast that a “relatively limited” number of nominations had been received and that just over 20 had been received. been approved.

Some drivers who have worked in Britain have said the country has become more xenophobic since Brexit, which came into effect in January 2020, a law that would guarantee ‘British jobs for British workers’. In 2013, he warned of a “Romanian crime wave”.

“We lost a group of drivers to England five years ago, even when they knew Brexit was a possibility,” said Radoslaw Balcewicz, a consultant for a trucking company in Warsaw. “After Brexit many of them called and said they would never work there again.”

Drivers reported hearing occasional nativist remarks, variations of “You should go back to your country”. More common is the general feeling that the atmosphere in Britain has become less hospitable. Even the time limit of the visa offer is less than welcoming. The clear message, said a few drivers, is “Come here and work until Christmas Eve, then please go.”

“When I heard that Boris Johnson had made this offer, I thought, ‘He’s crazy,’” Mr Balcewicz said. “Imagine a 25 or 26 year old truck driver in Poland. He can go to Belgium and earn that much money. And the job is easier. He is closer to his family. He can drive on the right side of the road. In England, even the steering wheel is in the wrong place.

The direction of migration, since the arrival of Brexit and then the pandemic, has been largely one-sided – to the continent. The number of foreign-born nationals who left Britain as Covid-19 began to rampage around the world is estimated at around 1.3 million in a study by the Center of Excellence for Economic Statistics. The authors describe this as an “unprecedented exodus”.

Many of these deceased workers came from countries like Poland, Romania and Hungary, members of the European Union with lower wages and living standards. The restaurant industry is just one of the many victims of this influx of people. It’s not uncommon now to find signs warning customers to be prepared for delays. Diners at a Shake Shack in London are greeted with a sign reading: ‘Hey Shack Fam, due to current staff issues in the UK we are unable to guarantee our entire menu and on time. wait times may be longer than usual. “

The trucking industry has been hit just as hard. The British government estimates that it needs 100,000 more drivers. This raises the question of why the Ministry of Transport made only 5,000 temporary visas available. In Parliament, politicians from opposition parties argue that the low number reflects the ambivalence of the Conservative government.

“It’s a bandage to mend a broken leg,” said Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrats spokesperson for home affairs and member of parliament. “In many ways, the program highlights how this government is pulling in two directions at the same time. On the one hand, you have traditional conservative politicians who want to do what’s right for the economy and business and bring in European drivers. On the other hand, you have a right-wing ideological element of the party with a much more nationalist and exclusive program, whatever the economic consequences. “

The shortage of drivers has led some in the trucking industry to predict that the Christmas season will demand some unfortunate choices.

“If this problem is not corrected quickly, members of the supply chain will be forced to make a decision: do we want to ship essentials like food or luxury items for the holidays? Said Rob Holliman, who oversees 140 trucks as manager of two UK trucking companies. “We can have either milk in the supermarkets or Christmas gifts in the stores. There are not enough truckers to have both.

The reluctance of Polish truckers to relocate to Britain is also a story of how life in Poland has improved over the past decade. Fifteen years ago, when Witold Szulc moved to a town near Manchester, his truck driver’s salary and his quality of life increased dramatically, he said. Since 2010, Poland’s economic growth has been strong enough for FTSE Russell, which authorizes stock indexes, to reclassify the country as a developed market, rising relative to an emerging market.

As the fortunes of Poland increased, Mr. Szulc grew bitter against England. Parking lots and facilities for truckers, he said, are appalling compared to most countries in Europe. The showers are old and poorly maintained, and the toilets are dirty and smelly, a sentiment echoed by many truckers, foreign and otherwise. More importantly, he and his wife came to dread the idea of ​​raising their four children in Britain.

“We don’t like the British children’s way of life,” Szulc said. “They are loud, they behave badly, they don’t seem to respect anyone. And many of them don’t like immigrants, like their parents. We imagined our kids growing up like this, and we said, “No. “

In 2019 he returned to Poland and now he and a friend own and run an organic food store in Lodz.

Mr Skopinski, the driver who chats with friends on WhatsApp, also plans to return to Poland early next year. His mother is older and he would like to live nearby. Besides, he made enough money to leave.

“At this point,” he said, “the only thing I like about England is the finances.”

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